Our Cruel COVID Class System

A customer and employee wear masks at a Walmart store in North Brunswick, N.J., July 20, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Three tiers: essential, inessential, and expendable

Over a year ago, seeing the immediate effect that quarantines, shutdowns, and lockdown policies were having on Western democracies, I put out my futile prayer: “Let’s Never Get Used to This.” I was appalled by the culture of snitching taking over the United Kingdom, the open contemplation by major Western governments of “antibody certificates,” and the U.S. attitude of going into lockdown without ever explaining what measures would end it. There were none.

Some injustices of this period have been fought out in a way that makes them harder to repeat. Churches in California at least managed to establish that they could be tyrannized only as much as businesses were, not more so. Spotting an opportunity, Florida’s Ron DeSantis has promised amnesty for violators of COVID rules. Similar suits are under way in other countries.

The problem we face is almost too large to confront honestly. You can try to turn to the culture wars as they were before the pandemic, when some of us aimed to defend the Constitution from those who would seek to replace it (I’ll raise my hand). Or you can work yourself into a lather about the ongoing threat to democracy from Donald Trump and his followers, as those on the left have done. Maybe that’s life getting back to normal.

But I’m worried that, in the future, historians will laugh at us. Over a period of 16 months, we have just discovered that governance inspired by Chinese despotism could be practiced in the West in the name of public health. Across the former free world, constitutional rights were enthusiastically violated in the name of saving lives, and the vast majority of people complied happily or even became zealous enforcers themselves.

This is something governments can’t “unsee.” When governments and other powerful entities take a hard look at the wholescale shutdown of businesses and social and religious institutions, the requirement to work at home if possible, the Zoomification of social life, the suppression of dissenting opinion and the promotion of government party lines by all major social networks across the globe, what will they see? Tools available for many other problems.

And the problem of having seen reality in the lockdowns affects the rest of society as well. “Experts” and lawmakers categorized all work under two official labels, and a third one that no one ever said out loud. Let’s deal with the two official categories: essential and inessential. Essential workers are those who hold jobs that cannot be deep-sixed or slowed down without causing obvious societal dysfunction and deprivation. Inessential workers are those whose work can more or less be performed by way of computers and telecommunications.

The categories of essential and inessential make an intuitive and traditional sense, corresponding to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which describes how humans seek food, shelter, and safety before social opportunities. And in some societies — like that in the United Kingdom — truckers, grocery-store workers, and nurses received special esteem, because “knowledge workers” came to recognize their dependence on these essential workers.

In the United States, though, one profession fell in between the two categories, thereby revealing a more sinister Orwellian meaning in the terms “essential” and “inessential.” That profession was public-school teachers, who effectively argued — if they were backed by powerful enough teachers’ unions — that they were “inessential workers” who should stay tightly locked down at home and far from their usual work in the classroom. This is an odd turn of events if you’ve ever been accustomed to the self-importance of public-school teachers.

But their argument was that schools were far too dangerous, that schools were death traps in a way that grocery stores weren’t. But then of course, if that were true, it would mean that workers deemed essential (e.g., at grocery stores and gas stations) were in fact mere cannon fodder in the war on COVID.

The “essential workers” — truck drivers, the food workers — were acting as a servant class, making life possible for the supposedly inessential ones. Teachers did not want to be thought of in this way, but many parents who struggled to simultaneously work and proctor Zoom school from home concluded that teachers are in fact more essential than the pizza-delivery guy.

There was another category, never officially named, but it was large, and people in this group surely recognized the judgment made by governments and most of society: They were expendable. Mostly, these were workers in restaurants, bars, and the hospitality industry. The COVID recession hit hardest against the working-class women who dominate in these fields.

But not all expendable workers were low-wage earners. Expendable workers also included many small-business owners and entrepreneurs who operate locally and in person, rather than on the Internet. It included highly skilled workers such as airline pilots, many of whom, during the lockdowns, lost their certification to fly, and who are now being rushed back to work through recertification of their credentials. These workers and businesses have been sustained by the closest thing we’ve tried to a universal basic income. And the industries that are trying to hire them back are having trouble scaling up because of a labor shortage and the slowness of customers to return to their old habits.

Since the end of slavery and indentures, the burdens of class membership in the United States have traditionally been softened by the possibility of class mobility and the informal nature of our classes, which are not legal classes. But, for the better part of a year and half, these classes were partly formalized, and the economic dislocation of the pandemic is likely to create further separation between them.

There was a time when a title of nobility might have had some reason behind it. Your ancient ancestor was a particularly great berserker in a skirmish against bandits on the trading route, or an exceptional craftsman of weapons. But now you get the title of “inessential worker” — and you are noble in that you can stay home and Zoom while others are supposed to risk death by virus — just for being on a computer.

If today’s Marxists had any creativity or any tolerance for being among working-class and poor people, they might use this “inessential” title for a little workers’ revolution. But for good and ill, all the Marxists are inessential workers, too.


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